Conferences can be amongst the most enjoyable aspects of academic life. But they can also be stressful. Here are some tips to reduce the stress and to get the most value from a conference.
Before you go
Perhaps a conference has been chosen for you. Or you may get to choose your own. If the latter, select a conference about six months before you wish to go. Possible conferences can be found by asking around, or by googling key words in your discipline plus ‘conference’, or by looking at where papers in your field have been presented and published.
An overseas conference may be glamorous, and participation always looks good on a CV. Would you rather spend a few days in Birmingham or in Barcelona? Life can be full of tough choices. This isn’t one of them.
But there is an argument for UK conferences, as more potential employers in the UK are likely to attend a UK conference. If your budget permits, try to attend both UK and international conferences in your discipline.
Check the dates for submission of abstracts and final papers. If you’ve missed the first of these, don’t despair. A quick email to the conference secretary may allow you to submit after the official deadline, particularly if the conference itself is a few months away.
A conference ‘Call for Papers’ may give various ‘themes’ or session titles within the conference, perhaps with an outline timetable. If you are asked to choose a theme or a session for your paper, do suggest more than one. Some sessions will be oversubscribed; giving alternatives will increase the chances of your abstract being accepted.
It is better to give your presentation early on in the conference – other delegates are more likely to want to chat with you once they have heard your presentation, and of course you will be able to relax more easily after your talk.
Experienced conference-goers often try for a session early in the conference and try to avoid the sessions on the morning after the conference dinner and/or the last afternoon of the conference.
Funding the trip may be important for you. Seek support from your department, from university central funds, from relevant professional organisations, from your research sponsors, and from any relevant charities. Conference organisers often give discounted rates to research students - it’s always worth asking.
Check you have an up-to-date passport and appropriate visas for the host country before you go. Yes, it is obvious. But a former colleague of the author once spent a night in Athens airport detention centre for having omitted to do this. So don’t forget.
And if you don’t already have business cards, get some produced before the conference.
Write your paper, your presentation and/or your poster. Try them out on colleagues – perhaps in a lunchtime seminar - before the conference. Electronic submission is normal – and if the organisers don’t acknowledge receipt automatically, do check they have received them. And take copies with you to the conference – in electronic and paper form – just in case.
If you are presenting a poster rather than a full paper, it may also be worth producing a one-page summary of the work including your contact details. You can give these to people who visit your stand during the poster session.
At the conference
Register early and give yourself time to look at the delegate pack. The most important parts of this are the timetable, the delegate list, and, for large conferences, a map of room locations.
Take some time out to make a plan. Which sessions are most valuable for your work? Which speakers are you most keen to hear? Trying to attend everything will just lead to burnout, especially after a long flight.
Go through the delegate list. Note any names you recognise from the literature, or people representing institutions that you’d like to hear more about.
At the first break it may seem that everyone knows everyone else except you. This isn’t true. It’s just that those who do know each other are making the most noise – catching up since they last met at another conference six months ago. After a few conferences, you will be doing the same, so don't feel intimidated by this.
Make the most of the coffee breaks, mealtimes, and social activities. They provide a good chance to meet new people and to find out more about other research teams, many of which may have job vacancies either immediately or in future. Exchange business cards so you can keep in touch after the conference.
Be sure to walk around and see the conference city, especially if it is overseas. A few days of seeing nothing but the inside of airports, aeroplanes, hotels and lecture theatres isn’t good for mind or body.
Conferences are often well-supplied with alcohol at drinks receptions, conference dinners and late-night hotel bars. By all means enjoy the social side of the conference, but please don’t overdo it – especially on the night before your presentation.
After the conference
Once you get home, send short e-mails to people you met at the conference. You don’t need to say much; just note that it was nice to meet them, that you hope they had a safe trip home, and that you look forward to keeping in touch.
Then start planning for the next conference…